On the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital Accra lies a 30ft mountain of rotting discarded clothing. Look closely at the labels and you’ll find scores of garments once worn in the UK.
Among the twisted morass of cast-offs are trousers, tops and dresses from High Street stores such as H&M and M&S.
For it is here that the unpalatable truth about Britain’s over-burdened second-hand clothing market is beginning to reveal itself.
Many of the garments were donated to charity shops or placed in clothing recycling banks with the very best of intentions and the belief that they would be sold to raise money for good causes.
But, according to environmental experts, the UK’s love affair with ‘fast fashion’ is creating a massive surplus of poor-quality garments which are sent abroad via second-hand dealers and, in some cases, end up polluting countries on the other side of the world.
What a waste: ITN’s Penny Marshall (left) and Liz Ricketts of The OR Foundation wade through a clothing mountain in Accra
In Ghana, a major recipient of the UK’s second-hand clothing, the problem has reached breaking point. While this West African country has enjoyed a flourishing second-hand clothes market for more than half a century, the deluge of worn garments arriving there is overwhelming the country’s infrastructure.
A significant percentage of the clothing sent to the main market, Kantamanto — one of the largest second-hand clothing markets in the world — is unsaleable. And without the systems in place to recycle it, around 40 per cent of the used clothes imported into the country ends up rotting in landfill sites. More than 50 tonnes a day are being discarded, and many items are being dumped on wasteland and beaches and then finding their way into the sea.
It is a far cry from the Sixties, when Ghana’s flourishing second-hand market was in its infancy. One of the entrances to Kantamanto still bears the words ‘Obroni W’awu’ — an Akan phrase meaning ‘dead white man’s clothes’. The term was coined at a time when it was impossible to imagine that anyone still living would have given away the well-made clothes that had begun arriving in West Africa from the U.S. and Europe.
Now the quality of some stock has become so poor that it has no resale value at all, despite the best efforts of the market’s highly skilled tailors and seamstresses.
Most of the clothes sent to Ghana come from the UK, which is the second biggest exporter of worn clothing in the world. Cheap single-use items are the biggest problem — personalised T-shirts printed for stag dos or sports tops presented at the end of marathons.
Dumped in landfill sites and in the sea, they are left to decay, forming a poisonous clothing soup which spews toxins into the environment as the fibres break down.
‘The textile mountain is an environmental catastrophe,’ says Liz Ricketts, co-founder of The OR Foundation, a non-profit organisation researching the environmental, social and economic impact of the second-hand clothing trade in Accra.
‘Too much clothing is being manufactured because of fast fashion, and a lot of it isn’t made for a second life. Traders constantly reference the fabric as not being of good quality. They can’t sell it and so it ends up being thrown away.’
Among the twisted morass of cast-offs are trousers, tops and dresses from High Street stores such as H&M and M&S
In Kantamanto, around 15 million items of clothing arrive every week via the Ghanaian port of Tema — mostly from the UK. Packed in bales of varying quality and weighing between 50-100kg, many are sold unseen to traders for between £80 and £150 each. ‘A lot of the traders would say their business is about gambling,’ says Liz. ‘They often have no idea what to expect inside the bales.’
Indeed, some of the 5,000 predominantly Christian stall-holders can be seen saying prayers before cutting them open, in the hope that what lies inside will make them some kind of profit.
So who is responsible for the cheap cast-offs being dumped on countries such as Ghana? From the High Street giants mass-producing cheap designs to fashion-conscious Brits’ insatiable appetite for new clothes, the answer is far from straightforward.
The UK’s charity shops and the way they pass on unwanted clothes is also coming under increased scrutiny. As are the growing number of British second-hand clothing companies who buy up garments and sell them abroad.
When we donate clothes to a charity shop, staff select those of good enough quality to be re-sold in store. The rest are sold on to second-hand clothing dealers or recycling firms, who pay the charities around 45p per kilo.
While these firms will sell or dispose of some of these clothes in the UK, much of it is shipped overseas, where it is sold to traders such as those in Ghana.
A similar chain of events takes place when we donate clothes via charity bags put through our doors. However, as these bag schemes are typically run by third-party firms, charities are reliant on them to decide what is good enough for re-sale, and for them to pass on a slice of the money that is made overseas.
In 2011, the British Heart Foundation found that only 30 per cent of items donated via charity bags stand a chance of ending up in charity shops — with charities receiving as little as 5 per cent of the profit generated by selling clothes abroad.
According to WRAP, a British charity set up in 2000 to promote sustainable waste management, 70 per cent of all the UK’s used clothing is sent overseas, contributing to a worldwide second-hand trade in which billions of old items are bought and sold around the globe every year.
UN data indicates that the UK is the world’s second largest exporter of second-hand clothes. In 2018, £419 million worth were sold overseas, coming second only to the U.S. — which has a far bigger population — whose exports totalled £521 million. Liz Ricketts says: ‘We have to figure out a different relationship with clothing and really pressurise larger companies that are over-producing to stop. They have to step back and find new ways of creating value.’
But, not surprisingly, High Street fashion chains are showing no sign of cutting back on the vast amount of new clothing they produce each year, preferring to invest instead in recycling initiatives.
Dumped: An overflowing clothing bank in the Warminster Central Car Park in Wiltshire
Marks & Spencer, the UK’s largest clothing retailer, has partnered with Oxfam in a scheme called ‘Shwopping’. Customers bringing in unwanted clothes — including at least one M&S item — receive a voucher for £5 off when they spend £35.
The unwanted clothes are sold in Oxfam’s shops, overseas or recycled — raising nearly £20 million for the charity since the scheme began in 2008. It claims ‘nothing ends up in landfill’.
Donations that cannot be sold in the UK can be exported to markets in Europe, Africa or Asia, but the charity says it operates an ethical supply policy. For example, lightweight summer clothing is sent to a social enterprise project in Senegal, West Africa, designed to provide employment for disadvantaged women.
One of the world’s largest fashion brands, H&M, also offers a ‘Garment Collecting’ service for textiles of any brand, in any condition, in all of its stores. Customers receive a £5 voucher for every bag donated — redeemable against a minimum purchase of £25, which the company claims deters impulse buying.
The H&M ‘take-back’ scheme is run by the German company I:Collect, which gathers clothing in more than 60 countries and also works with clothing chain FatFace.
Around 50-60 per cent of items are sorted for re-wear or re-use, while the rest are recycled or used as combustibles for energy production. Like M&S, H&M claims ‘sending textiles to landfill is not an option’.
But last week, garments from both brands appeared in footage from an ITN news report on the clothing market at Kantamanto, and have been seen among the clothing mountain in Accra.
While there is no suggestion anything has been sent there directly from the UK, it is a stark reminder that once garments enter the second-hand supply chain, there is no way of knowing where in the world they will end up.
The global nature of the industry means clothes may be sold from the UK to other European countries, before being sorted and sent on again.
Ross Barry, of the family-run textile recycling firm LMB & Co, believes a key problem is the fact the industry is largely unregulated. ‘Too many people are coming into the industry looking to make a quick buck, and they’re ruining it for everyone else,’ he says.
‘We’ve hit saturation point. We’re making too many clothes and the recycling markets are full.’
He points out that some African countries have improved the situation by placing a high import duty on second-hand clothing, making the industry less attractive to unscrupulous sellers.
Uganda, he says, uses inspectors to examine imported clothes before signing them off.
‘We have to pay for that service — it’s a regulation they’ve introduced,’ he says.
His family’s East London-based firm has been operating for 35 years. During that time, the company has worked alongside charities, including Barnardo’s, and was the first to put clothing recycling banks on public streets. He says they have also built up valuable partnerships across the world, including in West Africa.
Unlike the unseen bales sold to traders at Kantamanto market, LMB checks every item by hand for quality before sending them on to small factories in West African countries, including Togo and Ghana, where staff have better local knowledge and know where best to direct the imported clothes.
In summer, around 60 per cent of what LMB buys from charity shops is good enough to be re-used. In winter, it drops to around 50. Items with rips, tears, buttons missing or permanent marks are sent for recycling in the UK. Cashmere and lambswool can be re-spun, synthetic fabrics can be cut for use as rags for the cleaning industry, or shredded and used as insulation fibres in cars and mattresses.
‘It’s our waste and we should handle it in the UK,’ says Barry.
Traders at Kantamanto Market would no doubt agree. At the end of each day, unsaleable clothes are thrown into the aisles between the stalls, ready to be swept up.
Each section of the market has its own way of dealing with waste. Some traders pay the local government to collect. Others pay informal collectors to take the clothing away.
But landfill sites in Ghana are overloaded — the site closest to Accra has been closed — and the surrounding streets are filled with clothing debris.
Liz Ricketts was in Accra in August when methane in one of the clothing dumps exploded. The subsequent fire is still burning, fuelled by smouldering clothes and toxic gases. She questions whether the second-hand clothing trade is an acceptable model for the large-scale re-use of fashion, given that roughly half of the clothing that passes through Kantamanto goes straight to landfill.
‘To view the second-hand clothing trade in Ghana as an optimal outlet for re-use is simply misinformed,’ she says.
‘The reality is that the global north is relying on Ghana and other nations to take part in a waste-management strategy necessitated by relentless overproduction and overconsumption.’
Robin Osterley, chief executive of the Charity Retail Association (CRA), says he wouldn’t want to deter anyone from donating to UK charity shops, which undoubtedly raises money for those charities.
‘If charity shops didn’t exist to take clothes out of the waste stream, we’d have double the problem,’ argues Osterley. ‘But it’s a complex ecology, and charity shops need to ensure they are selling stuff to responsible second-hand traders and recyclers.’
The Textile Recycling Association (TRA), the trade body for collectors, processors and exporters of used textiles, says ‘it would make no sense for reputable businesses to export waste to their clients in recipient countries. This would cause severe reputational damage and they would not remain in business for long’.
TRA director Alan Wheeler said it was not clear what percentage of the waste in landfill was directly from the market in Accra, or whether items had been discarded after being worn by the Ghanaian public.
He also highlighted the importance of ‘proper and robust checks’ by customs officials in the UK and recipient countries, adding: ‘There must be better regulation of the sector and existing regulation around the exports of used clothes need to be enforced more robustly. There should be no waste in any shipments of used clothing destined directly for sale into African retail markets.’
To this end, the TRA — in collaboration with the CRA and charity retail chains — has launched the Traders Recycling Universal Standard (TRUST) certification scheme, which requires members to be audited.
This is designed to help charities identify the most ethical companies to work with when trading donated items that cannot be sold on the shop floor.
Mr Wheeler added that the ‘global public need to change their attitude towards fast fashion’.
And there are further signs of hope on the horizon. Liz Ricketts concedes that clothing bales coming from the UK to Accra are generally regarded as being of better quality than those from the U.S. and the rest of Europe — suggesting British textile recycling firms are becoming more discerning about what is sent to Africa.
But the reality is that until Britons kick their insatiable fashion habit, the problem of what to do with last season’s clothes will only get worse.
‘We’ve completely devalued what clothing is,’ says Liz. ‘I don’t know how we come back from treating fashion like a plastic bag or a plastic bottle.’